The Best Museums in Washington, D.C.

One of the great pleasures of visiting the nation’s capital is exploring the world’s largest museum complex: The Smithsonian, whose 20 institutions include the National Air and Space Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Many conveniently surround the National Mall, and all are free. It’s also worth going beyond the beaten path (and crossing the Virginia border) to visit more specialized museums, full of inspiring art and historic artifacts.

600 Independence Ave SW
Opened to the public as part of the country’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, this is the largest of the Smithsonian Institution’s 20 museums. It is the most-visited museum in the U.S. (and the second-most-visited museum in the world behind the Louvre), containing the world’s largest collection of air and space craft, as well as interactive flight simulators, an IMAX theater, and the Einstein Planetarium. More than 60,000 objects connected with aviation and human flight are housed here, including the Wright brothers’ 1903 Wright Flyer; Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis; Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1, the Glamorous Glennis, which broke the sound barrier; astronaut John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury capsule; the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which carried the first men to the moon; the Apollo-Soyuz Hook-up; and Skylab. As immense as the museum may seem, you are looking at only 10 percent of the entire collection. The remaining 90 percent is located at the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, the largest air and space museum building in the world.
Independence Ave SW &, 7th St SW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
Located on the National Mall, the Smithsonian Institution’s only modern art museum boasts the United States’ most comprehensive collection of 20th-century art, with more than 12,000 paintings, sculptures, and photographs. The spectrum and evolution of contemporary art are reflected in works from a diverse array of artists, including Matisse, Picasso, de Koonig, and Warhol. Adjacent to the museum, the 1.5-acre multi-terraced Sculpture Garden creates a tranquil area for viewing more than 60 sculptures, such as Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” which was nearly confiscated by the Nazis during World War II.
1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC 20005, USA
Housed in a 1907 Renaissance Revival structure that was previously a Masonic temple, the NMWA is the world’s leading museum dedicated to recognizing women’s achievements in the visual, performing, and literary arts. The collection houses more than 4,700 paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts by nearly 1,000 women spanning the 16th century to the present. Explore all four floors and view works from the likes of Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, and Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun.
10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
The National Museum of Natural History has become the steward of one of the largest natural history collections, with over 126 million specimens including hundreds of mammals from Africa, Australia, and the Americas. This museum always tops visitors’ lists for its vast collection and the famous Hope Diamond. While the museum is free, some exhibits and the IMAX theater require admission. This museum is always busy, but more so on holidays and weekends. It’s best enjoyed early in the day and during the week, if you can.
555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001, USA
The Newseum is an interactive, ever-evolving tribute to our First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Powerful exhibits such as eight sections of the Berlin Wall (the largest display outside Germany) provide historical context for the importance of free press, while timely exhibits about the civil rights movement provoke reflection on the progress of achieving equality. The daily-updated “Front Pages” gallery of local, national, and international publications is a comparative study on current events, while the archive of headlines highlighting momentous events from the 1400s through today is an engaging history lesson. Peruse Pulitzer Prize–winning photography, enjoy panoramic views down Pennsylvania Avenue, and test your journalistic skills with a recorded mock-broadcast—reading a teleprompter is not as easy as you may think!
14th St and Constitution Ave, NW
Originally founded as the National Museum of History and Technology in 1964, this museum charms visitors with over three million artifacts and national treasures related to formative events in American history. Highlights include the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the “Star Spangled Banner,” the First Ladies gowns, an 1850 John Bull locomotive, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, White House china and porcelain, Thomas Edison’s 1879 light bulb, the original Greensboro lunch counter from the 1960 sit-ins, George Washington’s Revolutionary War uniform and saber, and an “American Stories” exhibit that includes Dorothy’s ruby red slippers and a Kermit the Frog puppet.
Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20565, USA
With two buildings and a sculpture garden, the National Gallery of Art is a treasure-filled trifecta where each person’s gems will only be uncovered through an immersive day (or more) of cultural exploration. The West Building is a chronological history lesson of Western art that showcases masters including Leonardo da Vinci, Monet, and van Gogh. Continue through time by taking the moving walkway under the 41,000-LED Multiverse light installation to the contemporary East Building. Here, Alexander Calder’s largest mobile hangs from the atrium roof, works from Warhol and Pollack are featured, and Katharina Fritsch’s 15-foot blue rooster sculpture stands proud on the rooftop terrace. Back on the ground, the Sculpture Garden is the perfect place to reflect on the day.
100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl SW, Washington, DC 20024, USA
The Holocaust Memorial Museum is a living memorial to the more than 11 million victims who perished at the hands of the Nazis before and during World War II. Built in 1993, the permanent exhibition tells the Holocaust’s full story through real belongings rescued by survivors and Allied concentration camp liberators, as well as oral histories, films, photographs, music, and artwork created in the camps. (A must-see: the sobering display of thousands of pairs of shoes.) There is also a Children’s Wall, a children’s exhibit called “Daniel’s Story,” and rotating temporary exhibits. Designed by Holocaust survivor James Ingo Freed, the architecture is symbolic of the ghettos and concentration camps—notably Auschwitz-Birkenau.
1307 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036, USA
Built from 1892 to 1894, this uniquely intact Victorian mansion was the home of German-American philanthropist and beer magnate Christian Heurich. Considered the world’s oldest brewmaster, he ran the Christian Heurich Brewery on the site where the Kennedy Center now stands—until his death in 1945 at the age of 102. At this museum, visitors can learn the story of one of D.C.'s most successful entrepreneurs and his family, his influence on America’s brewing industry, and the construction of his 31-room mansion. As D.C.'s first fireproof home (he had a fear of fire), it is replete with hand-carved wood, 15 fireplaces with individually carved mantles, hand-painted ceiling canvases, luxurious furnished rooms, original Heurich family heirlooms, a bierstube (“beer room”), elevator shaft, and gas and electric lighting fixtures.
8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC 20001, USA
An undulating steel and glass canopy wows visitors who enter the Kogod Courtyard. Inside you’ll find diners from the museum’s café, tourists soaking their weary feet in the shallow fountain running across the space, and students taking advantage of free Wi-Fi in the light and airy setting. The modern roof seals the center of the old Patent Office Building, currently shared by the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. Architect Norman Foster designed the roof to have minimal impact on the building by creating a support system that prevents direct contact and weight placement on it. Unlike most of the other Smithsonian Museums located on the Mall, this gem is found in the busy Penn Quarter of downtown D.C. It is my favorite place to bring visitors, not only for the impressive courtyard space, but also for the preserved architecture of the patent offices on the top floor. Check the Smithsonian’s website for special courtyard workshops, concerts, or events. The museum is right near the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro on the green, yellow, and red lines.
1400 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
This extraordinary collection encompasses the dark and the light of our nation’s racial history, from the shackles, shacks, and whips of slavery to an exuberant lemon-yellow costume worn onstage by Bootsy Collins when playing bass for the funk band Parliament. The story begins several floors below ground-level with information about the early days of the African slave trade. Visitors follow the exhibits through the subsequent floors, climbing ramps as the story progresses through the colonies, the Constitution, the Civil War, Jim Crow and carpetbaggers, the civil rights movement, and up to the present. The exhibits on the upper floors, covering arts and sports and cuisine and community, are a joyous celebration of ongoing history and culture. The crowds who sign up for entry tickets months in advance, and who stand in front of displays and share their stories with complete strangers, are testimony that it’s high time this history was honored with its own museum.
2 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002, USA
Part of the Smithsonian Institution since 1993, this circa-1914 former Beaux Arts post office is the world’s first major museum devoted to postal history and philately (stamp collecting). It is an interactive museum that tells the history of America’s mail service since before the American Revolution. Highlights include a dog named Owney, mascot of the Railway Mail Service; Amelia Earhart’s flight suit; the Pony Express Gallery; and the National Philatelic Collection, the world’s oldest intact stamp collection and the Smithsonian’s second largest collection with over six million interesting and iconic stamps that include the Elvis Stamp. Uh-huh, thank you very much!
1661 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20006, USA
The phrase “Dedicated to Art” is engraved in stone over the entrance of the Renwick Gallery, a reminder of its rich history as the nation’s first building created expressly as an art museum. More than a century and a massive renovation later, this mission continues to hold true. The Renwick celebrates contemporary craft and decorative arts through immersive installations, special exhibitions, and impressive collections of jewelry, wood art, and studio furniture. The curated works are both elegant and innovative, much like the Second Empire architecture of the building when it was first designed by Renwick in 1859. As with all Smithsonian Institution museums, admission is free.
2401 Foxhall Rd NW, Washington, DC 20007, USA
North of Georgetown, nestled on 5.5 acres of woods and gardens, this obscure museum is the former mansion of Geico Insurance executive and avid art collector David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife, Carmen. Designed and built by renowned architect Philip Johnson, the International Style masterpiece displays the couple’s collection of 19th- and 20th-century European and American art, and traditional African and Asian art, with an outdoor sculpture garden to boot. Highlights include paintings and sculptures by Picasso (their favorite artist), Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Rodin, Chagall, Mondrian, and local talents. The museum also functions as a venue for after-hours classical and jazz concerts.
1050 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
Together, the Freer Gallery and the Sackler make up the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art. In 1987, the Sackler launched with a 1,000-piece collection and funds donated by Dr. Arthur Sackler, a research physician and medical publisher. Early Chinese jades and bronzes, Chinese paintings and lacquerware, Near Eastern ceramics and metalware dating from the 4th to 7th centuries, and Hindu and Buddhist sculpture from the 10th to the 18th centuries constitute the bulk of his gift. Accompanying the permanent collection are special rotating exhibitions showcasing various aspects of ancient and contemporary Asian art.
201 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20006, USA
The Art Museum of the Americas is supported by the Organization of the American States and has a permanent collection that focuses on contemporary Latin American and Caribbean art by both established and up-and-coming talents. Although it’s on the beaten tourist path and right near the White House, most visitors to D.C. don’t realize this small museum exists (look for the yellow wrought-iron sculpture near the entrance). The upside is that there are absolutely no crowds to contend with. The second-floor galleries are separated by a magnificent blue tiled loggia inspired by Aztec and Incan art, and there’s a small sculpture garden with a water fountain and a statue of Xochipili, the Aztec god of flowers.
950 Independence Avenue Southwest
A part of the Smithsonian family since 1979, the National Museum of African Art is the only museum dedicated to the study of African art and culture with an emphasis on sub-Saharan artistic achievements. Admire the continent’s diverse and compelling art forms and patterns through its collection of over 6,000 objects, including masks, textiles, regalia, furniture, sculptures, ceramics, and everyday household items.
700 L'Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20024, USA
Aside from fictional spies like James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Austin Powers, few of us know much about the world of espionage and that’s probably very deliberate. After all, you can’t expect any good spy to be giving away their trade secrets. If you are intrigued by spies, and want to separate fact from fiction, then the place for you is the International Spy Museum; it is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to espionage. Here, you can learn all about the gadgets and techniques real spies used, from cameras embedded in everyday objects, to my favorite, the lipstick pistol. Discover the realm of ciphers and codes that spies use to transmit messages, notorious female spies (you’ll likely recognize most of the names but never knew they were spies), and the role of carrier pigeons in espionage. For fun, you can also assume the identity of one of 16 different spies. As you walk through the museum there are displays as well as guards to test how well you remember the details of your spy profile. There is also a GPS guided tour called Spy in the City which involves walking streets around the museum to solve a spy case on your own. It’s a lot of fun, plus you get to see a bit of the Penn Quarter neighborhood at the same time. Though the Spy Museum is small, they cram in the displays and there is a lot of information to read. Give yourself at least four hours to cover it all.
4th St SW & Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
During three years of living in Washington, D.C., I made it my mission to visit as many museums as I could, and the National Museum of the American Indian quickly won me over. I was greeted by a live dance performance and welcomed into a circular space reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The exhibits are educational, informative and engaging, and the space itself is a captivating exercise in design. It may often be overlooked, but it’s one of the best D.C. museums with a notable food court featuring Native American-inspired dishes.
4155 Linnean Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA
Marjorie Merriweather Post was a wealthy American socialite and heiress to the Postum Cereal fortune. Her Washington home is now a museum, and the home’s original furnishings have been maintained alongside all the near-priceless collectibles that Marjorie amassed during her lifetime. Thanks to a curator friend who trained her eye to identify pieces worthy of collecting, Marjorie filled Hillwood with museum-quality pieces of furniture, works of art, Russian icons, rugs, and tapestries as well as fine porcelains, glassware, and jade carvings. The collection also includes two rare diamond-studded Fabergé eggs. Every inch of wall is decorated, and luxurious fabrics drape the windows. Some visitors might find it all a bit too ostentatious; others will think it simply exquisite. To say that Marjorie was an obsessive collector is an understatement, and the best way to take it all in is to go on the Mansion Tour. The gardens are as well dressed as the interiors; there are several interconnected garden “rooms,” and each is of a different style, such as French Parterre or Rose Garden. On nice days, you’ll see people picnicking on the grounds.
3800 Fettler Park Dr, Dumfries, VA 22025, USA
This museum opened in November 2006 as “a lasting tribute to the United States Marines—past, present, future” on a 135-acre site next to the Marine Corps base at Quantico. It’s about a 45-minute drive south of D.C. on 1-95, and admission and parking are free. The dramatic design is inspired the image of the flag raisers of Iwo Jima in World War II. The galleries offer virtual experiences of World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam. You can also experience a marine’s first days: Step onto the yellow footprints outside the bus that represent a recruit’s first Marine Corps boot camp wake-up call as the DI yells his instructions. On-site restaurant Tun Tavern is named in honor of the original in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was the birthplace of the Marine Corps in 1775.
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